I sell all my possessions down to a backpack of clothes and supplies and make for the West Coast. I get to Colorado when I hear most of California is on fire, but I keep going anyway.
I trade for a train ticket outside of Denver, and I’m waiting at the train station at the tracks, sitting on a bench. No one else but the moon.
It’s midnight, and I’ve been alone for a long time. Just me and the road, and the tracks gleaming their twin iron rails off to the west and the east. The train should’ve been here hours ago.
I’m just about to cut my losses and make for the mountains on foot when it approaches.
I hear the bounding first. Massive paws on dirt, supporting muscle and fur, elegantly distributed on a three-part evenly-placed beat of a gallop. Whump-whump-whump, whump-whump-whump.
I think of running but for some reason stay where I’m at.
The thing rears out of the darkness down by the treeline. I see there’s a person riding it. It follows the tracks, making for the station. I hear its huge paws pounding away at the ground.
The thing reminds me of Sweetums from the Muppets, or a beastly, quadrupled cousin of Chewbacca. It’s on all fours, the size of a small truck. Its face is broad and boxy, its mouth wide and down-turned, its eyes huge pale headlights and its nose a flat grill. It’s got long, shaggy brown fur that brings to mind a woolly mammoth. Its feet are like three-toed elephant hooves, its body like a bear — all thick, low-slung neck and powerful shoulders and piledriver legs.
As it gets close, I see there’s an enormous saddle slung across its back. Riding in the saddle is a man of about fifty with a handlebar mustache and muscles that bulge out of his flannel shirt. He wears a red MAGA hat, which makes me nervous.
He slows his beast to a stop in front of me, the reins are thick as cables. The thing pants in front of me. It stinks like a tractor, and I can see sweat dripping off the tendrils of fur at its belly and legs. It grunts and snuffles to itself.
“Need a ride?” the rider asks.
“I’m waiting on a train,” I tell him.
“Train ain’t comin’,” he says. “Rebels got the train outside Grand Junction. You either come with me or make your own way. Where you goin’?”
Rebels got the train.That means there’s no time to waste. If they took the train, they’re likely not far behind. There’s no time for questions now.
I look at the beast, its big purple tongue hanging out its thick, purple lips, painted with drool.
“What is this thing?”
“An esuvee,” said the rider. “Government bred ’em before the collapse. Biovehicle. Cyborg. This here is Stella. She’ll get you anywhere so long as you buy us both a drink and a meal and a room when we get there. She drinks diesel, I drink whiskey. Now, where you goin’?”
“I was going to Los Angeles,” I say. “But something tells me if the train is taken, then Los Angeles got taken a long time ago.”
“You’d be right,” says the man. “We’re headed east. Word is Kansas City’s the only safe place west of the Mississippi now.”
I have one thing I need to know before we go any further.
“Why you wearing the hat?” I ask.
“Don’t worry about that,” says the rider. “I got my old allegiances, but I swear on my mother’s grave I ain’t gonna hurt you. Squabblin’s gotta end. We’re all in this together now. And I gotta keep my hair outta my face somehow.”
He bends down and offers me his hand.
“Climb aboard, senorita,” he says, and for the first time I see how ruggedly handsome he is, how dashing and grizzled. “Thy hairy chariot awaits.”
The esuvee swings her head around to look at me. Her electrical eyes, though fierce in their LED glow, have a gentleness behind them. She licks her lips like a Newfoundland, pants at me. Her breath feels like a fireplace and smells like exhaust. I see her paws are made of tire rubber.
I look at the rider’s outstretched hand, and decide to take my chances.
A minute later and I’m hanging onto the rider’s granite shoulders as the station gets lost behind us in the trees, Stella’s smokestack legs doing fifty miles an hour easy. I swallow a mouthful of summer night, and for the first time in months I’m truly exhilarated to be alive.